We all should be.
There’s only so much nonsense you can take before the phrase “I’ve had it up to here” should be utilized.
Le’Veon Bell has reached that point.
On the off-chance you’re still living under a rock in 2018, Le’Veon Bell is a professional football player, specifically, a running back, in the National Football League who plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s very accomplished, carries superior talent and has become possibly the best in the world at what he does and so has asked to be paid as such. So far so good.
I, as well as most, completely sympathize with someone’s efforts being rewarded. We want to see our work and time appreciated and for us to be compensated as such. That is perfectly reasonable.
If you haven’t followed Bell’s saga because you’ve been under that rock, here’s a synopsis:
- Bell is drafted in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, the second back taken off the board.
- Bell suffers a mid-foot sprain in his second preseason game, missing the first three weeks of the season. Despite that, Bell breaks legend Franco Harris’ rookie franchise record for yards from scrimmage (1,259).
- Bell has a stellar 2014, finishing second in rushing yards and scrimmage yards behind DeMarco Murray, leads all backs in receiving and earns his first Pro-Bowl nod. Bell hyperextends his knee in the final contest of the regular season, missing the playoffs.
- Bell is arrested with then-teammate LeGarrette Blount on DUI and marijuana possession charges. He’s suspended two games.
- Bell’s 2015 season ends after suffering a torn MCL.
- Bell sleeps through an alarm and misses a third drug test, which ends in another suspension, this time for three games.
- Bell suffers a groin injury late in divisional round, leaving him mostly inactive for the Steelers’ championship loss against New England.
- In 2017, Bell is named to his third Pro Bowl and amasses nearly 2,000 scrimmage yards.
- Days before the team’s playoff match with Jacksonville, Bell says he would consider retiring if the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him for a second consecutive campaign. The previous offseason, Bell turned down a five-year contract that would have paid him an annual average value, or AAV, of 12. It included 30 million for his first two seasons and 42 for his first three, an unprecedented evaluation for a running back. Even Adrian Peterson’s extension back in 2011, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, had an AAV of 9.6. Bell turned down 12.
There are a couple of things you should take note of in the above section:
- Le’Veon Bell is good at running back.
- Le’Veon Bell has disciplinary issues.
- Le’Veon Bell has an injury history.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at some headlines:
“LE’VEON BELL REPORTEDLY WANTS $17 MILLION A YEAR”
“LE’VEON BELL WANTS TO BE PAID AS TOP RB AND NO 2 WR”
“LE’VEON BELL WANTS $17 MILLION A YEAR FROM STEELERS LIKE ANTONIO BROWN”
I wish I could say I laughed when I saw these. I really do.
You see, reader from under the rock, Le’Veon Bell has an ego.
That’s fine. He’s Le’Veon Bell. He’s really good at running back.
However, I’m talking about Le’Veon Bell’s ego. Le’Veon Bell’s ego is huge. Le’Veon Bell has been surrounded by people who tell him he’s God’s gift to the world.
This is also fine. Parents tell this to their children every day before they send them off to school, usually to try to give them a much-needed boost of confidence but ostensibly because they have no idea how to parent. They figure if they make them confident, everything will fall into place.
Bell is a product of what happens when this parenting technique goes horribly wrong. Le’Veon believes himself to be so talented that he rationalizes he should be paid as two different people, both a top running back and a two-spot receiver, but also believes he’s worth as much as the league’s best pass catcher, Antonio Brown. Now, reader under a rock, feel free to google Antonio Brown on YouTube to get to know the guy a little bit. I actually talked about him in my One Team, One Jersey series, where I talk about each football team and decided what jersey I would want from that team. (Insert shameless plug here).
Despite the fact that one more slip-up in the drug department could warrant a long-term suspension and Bell’s struggle to play a full 16-game spread, both of which are rather large red flags, Bell thinks he’s worth $17 million a year.
Rather than mock Bell for another couple paragraphs, I’m gonna give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s what any sportswriter or fan should do. Let’s take a look at the evidence and give the guy a fair trial, shall we?
Let’s take a look at salary cap figures, just to get an idea of how good Le’Veon thinks he is.
Prior to this offseason, the largest cap hit for any running back in the league was LeSean McCoy at 8.95. Even after all of the signings this spring, Jerick McKinnon’s 2018 cap hit is 10.5 after signing a four-year, $30 million deal to become the starting tailback of San Francisco. His AAV? 7.5. A reminder that Bell is asking for 17.
The highest AAV for a running back is 8.25. That number belongs to Devonta Freeman, who in August signed a five-year extension for $41.25.
A reminder: Bell wants an AAV of 17.
In 2018, only two backs will have an AAV of 8 or more: Freeman and standout LeSean McCoy. Add McKinnon and you get the only three who are making more than 7 per. Le’Veon Bell will play on the franchise tag and will make $14.5, meaning he’s making more than double the pay of almost every running back in professional football. If he had signed that extension, that five-year, $60 million offer, Bell would be making more than double what every running back in the league is making with the exception of the three above plus Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott and Lamar Miller. (Fournette and Elliott are still on their rookie deals.)
For context, learner under the rock, the running back market has not increased over the last few seasons. It is cemented in stone at this point that only the very best running backs see close to no depreciation once they hit 30. Backs touch the ball more than any player other than a quarterback and take a lot of punishment because of it. Due to that, most backs are out of the league once they near or surpass 30 years of age. Only the gridiron gods can keep their game together and even then, sometimes those generational talents begin to fade away.
This is why Bell wants paid so much. He knows what we all do: his career will end before most other athletes from his draft class because of the position he plays.
With that said, Bell wants double the next guy. His latest evaluation of $17 million AAV means he believes he’s worth double any back in the NFL. It takes an extraordinary amount of arrogance to make that claim, but it’s only arrogance if it’s not true. So let’s find out if it is.
In five seasons, Bell has amassed 5,336 yards rushing and 2,660 yards receiving for a net total of 7,996. He’s accomplished this in 62 games for a per game average of 128.96 yards, a statistic that Bell has paraded around a number of times to prove his worth. That 128.96 is one of the best numbers in NFL history, currently at the top of the list, though many, including me, doubt that number’s sustainability. Hall of Fame players have seen similar numbers in their early years before seeing their numbers teeter off on the back-end. The great Jim Brown is right behind Bell at 125.5 and not only did he play in a less organized era when football was still very rudimentary, Brown retired at 29. We never got to see his play diminish. Even Barry Sanders, who retired at 30, posted 118.9 in his career, an incredible achievement that hasn’t come close to being duplicated. The closest are Terrell Davis and Adrian Peterson, who posted 113.9 and 112 respectively.
It is hard for any analyst to look at the players on this list, all of the greats, and believe the argument that Bell is greater than all of them.
Let’s pretend for a moment he is. Let’s compare him to some of the other younger talents in the NFL.
Taking a look at a player’s first few years, the same as Bell’s career length at this juncture, should give us an idea of how comparable or incomparable he is.
Le’Veon Bell 62 games, 62 started 5,336/2,660/7,996/128.96/128.96 (rushing/receiving/total/yards per game/yards per game started)
Devonta Freeman 61 games, 43 started 3,248/1,582/4,830/79.18/112.33
LeSean McCoy 74 games, 60 started 5,473/2,127/7,600/102.73/126.66
Frank Gore 73 games, 60 started 5,561/1,841/7,402/101.40/123.37
Adrian Peterson 73 games, 66 started 6,752/1,170/7,922/108.52/120.03
LaDainian Tomlinson 79 games, 79 started 7,361/2,292/9,653/122.19/122.19
Edgerrin James 65 games, 65 started 6,172/2,019/8,191/126.02/126.02
If we look at three comparable players from his current era, we see Bell’s numbers are comparable to even someone like Frank Gore, who during his early years played in the garbage fire that was San Francisco. While Bell’s receiving numbers are higher than any player’s on this list, there have been players who have done more on the ground in recent years and some by a wide margin. An additional five to ten yards simply doesn’t make you worth double the next guy. It’s just basic economics.
I also compiled a list of three Hall of Famers (James should get in sooner rather than later) and you’ll see his numbers are comparable.
“Wait, how can even Devonta Freeman, who hasn’t done anything crazy special in his career, still be putting up numbers in the same ballpark as LT? And how did Frank Gore average a little under five yards less in his first five years than Le’Veon Bell?”
Honestly, it’s because the difference between a very good and great running back often aren’t chasms apart. While the game has evolved away from the run game, the best backs in the league can still get it done. Look no further than LeSean McCoy, who has made a great career into a possible Canton trip. Look no further than Edgerrin James, who put up Bell-level production while Peyton Manning was performing surgery on NFL defenses. Look no further than Frank Gore, who played with a new offensive coordinator literally every season and still put up Pro-Bowl level numbers.
Le’Veon Bell has been gifted a top-five offensive line, Hall of Fame quarterback and the best receiver in football.
Frank Gore played with Antonio Bryant and pre-resurrection Alex Smith.
Hell, if we take out Gore’s rookie year, when he started only one game and show just his second through fifth seasons, when he started every game he played in, his stat line looks like this:
Frank Gore 59 games, 59 started 4,953/1,700/6,653/112.76/112.76
112 yards per game behind the San Francisco 49ers line of the mid 2000’s is incredible value. A player of Bell’s talent is almost expected to mimic those numbers behind a great offensive line.
For transparency’s sake, what if we needle some of these stats down to make a more accurate sample size.
LeSean McCoy 58 games, 56 started 4856/1819/6,675/115.09/119.20
At 115 yards per game, McCoy was at a per game average slightly behind Barry Sanders, yet was only paid $8 million in AAV. Why is that? Let’s take a closer look.
McCoy, in 2017, put up 1,586 yards from scrimmage. That means McCoy was paid $4,886.51 per yard by cap hit. Not a bad pay-day.
Todd Gurley won Offensive Player of the Year last season, accruing 2,093 yards. Still on his rookie deal, that means Gurley was paid…$808.24 per yard?
This, lad under the rock, is called the salary cap.
You see, to make the playing field fair, the suits instituted a salary cap, meaning there was a limit put in place to what a team could spend on its players. This led to a more competitive board and to new philosophies regarding team building. One of those philosophies is not spending a bazillion dollars on one player.
When it became apparent how difficult it was to find an excellent passer, teams assigned higher value to that position, the same way that teams starting pouring money into the left tackle spot after Lawrence Taylor killed Joe Theismann. (You probably don’t get that reference. Sorry. Here’s a link.)
So when teams started to find their running backs slowing down and coupled that with the evolution of pass-happy offenses, executives, and therefore the market, determined the running back position was less valuable.
In the 2016 season, Aaron Rodgers piled a total of 4,797 yards during a year in which he was paid $12.6 million, which means $2,626.64 per yard. By cap hit? $4065.04. For those who struggle with math, $4,065 is less than $4,886. Don’t worry. Bell’s number figures to be a lot higher than that.
A base salary of $17 million in 2018 would put him sixth in the NFL in AAV behind Kirk Cousins’ new deal, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, DeMarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah. (It’s worth noting that Lawrence and Ansah are also playing on the franchise tag this upcoming season.)
Not only that, if Bell made $17 million in cash in 2018, that would put him one spot outside the top 25 highest-paid players in the NFL, a majority of which came from this most recent offseason. (If you don’t know, human under the rock, the offseason is when teams pay exorbitant prices to get players to join their team). McKinnon’s new signing will earn him $12 in 2018, good for 62nd in the league in total net earnings. To get to the next back, you have to scroll for half of your lifespan all the way down to 246, where LeSean McCoy’s $6.325 sits.
Which means, using our math skills, that Bell is looking to make nearly triple what LeSean McCoy is making despite averaging about ten more yards a game on a far better offensive unit.
I guess you have to ask yourself: Is ten more yards worth an additional $11 million?
No. No, it’s not.
Is it worth the additional $9 million in AAV Bell is looking for?
No. No, it’s not.
At 1,946 scrimmage yards last year at the figure Bell wants, he would have been paid $8,735.87 a yard by cap hit. Why would anyone pay nearly $9,000 a yard when they can get the same production for less than $5?
Yes, third-down yards carry more value. Yes, fourth-quarter yards carry more value. Sadly, I don’t have the resources to look at those numbers. Given the numbers at our disposal, is it possible Bell is worth that much more than the next guy?
No. No, it is not.
This isn’t rocket science, my new friend. It’s basic math.
It’s now come to my attention that you probably don’t understand that expression. My apologies. Will have to get to that later.
To make matters worse, Bell has picked up a shovel and started digging his own grave with social media, accusing fans and the media of painting him as a villain. It was one of the most tone-deaf uses of social media yet displayed in 2018. No one was bashing Bell’s performance. They were tortured by his unabated greed. As one media member commented, “Look down, Le’Veon. You’re the one holding the paintbrush.”
Le’Veon has not only made his tenure with the Steelers continuing beyond this season as improbable as a lottery winner, he’s also tarnished his reputation and image by decrying those who believe his numbers to be inaccurate, even if they are, factually, inaccurate. General annoyance with his antics has turned into the type of frustration a parent has when they’re forced to watch their child ignore their advice and run their head into a wall. I’m completely done with Le’Veon and so is much of this city. Annoyance has transformed to rage and now dissolved into complete apathy. I don’t care about Bell and I can’t wait when he’s off this roster.
I hope you’ve enjoyed escaping from under the rock, my new friend. The only one that’s still under there now is Le’Veon.